Massachusetts Districts Adopt Rigorous MassCore Course Requirements for High School Graduates

A teacher helps two students in a school science lab.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

Twenty years ago, Massachusetts was one of the first States to raise expectations for what all students should know and be able to do by implementing higher standards and greater accountability for schools and districts.  Today, the State’s students consistently perform at the top on national assessments. Even with that enviable track record, Massachusetts continues to see gaps in achievement and college- and career-readiness based on students’ race, ethnicity, native language, and family poverty level.

So, in 2007, after the State Department of Education reported that too many students were leaving high school unprepared for the rigors of college and the workplace, Massachusetts established what it called the “MassCore” course of study: more instruction in mathematics, English, science, social studies and a foreign language. Massachusetts recommended that all high school students meet the MassCore course of study, and left it up to individual school districts to determine whether to require it.

A student does a math worksheet with a graphing calculator nearby.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

The Melrose Public School district just north of Boston was among the first to make the MassCore course of study a requirement.  “We’re asking more of students,” said Margaret Adams, the district’s chief academic officer. “If we help and support them and give them the tools to be successful, they rise to the occasion every time.”

In 2009, the Federal Race to the Top program invited States to submit aggressive, comprehensive plans for improving curriculum and instruction, enhancing educator effectiveness, and ensuring that more students are well prepared for success in college and careers. In their response to the invitation, Massachusetts State officials highlighted the potential of MassCore to increase student success in higher education and the 21st century global economy. That led to efforts to provide districts with incentives and support to encourage more of them to make the MassCore course of study a requirement.

Encouraging More Districts to Require MassCore

“We said our primary goal in the K–12 system is to ensure that students are career and college ready… and to that end, one of our major levers, but not the only lever, is MassCore,” noted Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester. “This is a big push.”

In this chart, the 2005 diploma requirements in Massachusetts are contrasted with MassCore requirements, which were created in 2007 and admission requirements for four-year universities in Massachusetts.  For English and math, in 2005 it was “meet competency determination” but for universities and MassCore it is 4 Years.  For social studies and U.S. history, in 2005 it was one year but for universities it is two years and MassCore it is three years.  For science in 2005 it was not applicable, but for universities it is three years including two with lab and MassCore it is three years all with lab.  For foreign languages, it was not applicable for 2005, and for MassCore and universities, it was two years in a single language for universities.  For health/PE, it was 4 years in 2005, but not applicable for MassCore and universities.  For arts, it was not applicable in 2005 and for universities, but 1 year for MassCore.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Education

Today, roughly 70 percent of Massachusetts students are completing the recommended course of study. Approximately 10 percent of districts have made MassCore a requirement. The State is taking several steps to continue increasing those percentages.

Massachusetts is using support from Race to the Top to help districts develop new courses, expand existing courses, offer online classes, and purchase textbooks and other instructional materials.

Another incentive will come in 2016, when the State’s 29 public higher education campuses, including the University of Massachusetts system, begin requiring applicants to have passed four years of English and three years of laboratory science. Additionally, Massachusetts is exploring launching a pilot with three to four districts to gather data about their experiences. That would allow the State to understand the opportunities and challenges from making MassCore the State’s default program of study.

In an effort to create more urgency around MassCore, the State publicizes the number and percentage of students at each high school who complete those courses.  The State includes that information in enhanced school profiles that also show how many students are ready for college or careers when they graduate and how many succeed.

To allow parents, business leaders and superintendents to monitor how well each district’s graduates are doing after they leave high school, the State has created what it calls the Data Analysis and Reporting Tool (DART): Success After High School database. This tool allows any user to compare districts that are similar based on MassCore completion rates and data about how students do in college or in the labor market.

“We want to increase the incentive for districts and parents to pay attention to this information and use it to try to upgrade the curriculum,” Commissioner Chester said.

Five years ago, fewer than 60 percent of the graduates of Melrose High School completed the MassCore course of study. Last year, 95 percent of the district’s 268 graduates did so. To make that possible, the district shifted its staffing to ensure all students had access to the courses they needed, Adams said. The district also renovated labs for biology, chemistry, physics, and anatomy classes and used Race to the Top support to offer online classes that blend classroom and online instruction in foreign languages, which can be difficult for a small school to staff.

Removing Barriers to Future Success

The Springfield Public Schools put the policy in place for the graduating class of 2013. “We did not want our students’ high school studies to be a barrier to their future,” said Yolanda Johnson, the district’s director of student support services. “If we were ever going to improve our college-going and college-completion rate, this is what we were going to have to do.”

The efforts are making a difference. About 36 percent of the district’s 2012 graduates completed the MassCore requirements; that figure jumped to 85 percent in SY 2013.

The emphasis on MassCore has shone a spotlight on the needs of students who were at risk of dropping out, many of whom needed more engaging coursework or focused attention to help them acquire a final credit or two, Johnson said. It is well established that the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum is among the strongest predictors of college success. On some campuses, such as Springfield’s alternative high schools, MassCore raised expectations significantly. “Sometimes there is a perception that at-risk kids don’t want to go to college, but they do,” Johnson reflected. “So, we had to make sure our approach was consistent and equitable.”

Students listen to an instructor and do a worksheet in class.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

At Springfield Central High School, where the graduation rate is above 75 percent, MassCore ensures that students have a strong mastery of core subjects while leaving room for them to pursue electives and other interests. “Our philosophy is that we’re going to educate you to the highest extent of your ability,” says Principal Thaddeus Tokarz. “It’s our job to give them what they need to go out in the world and be successful.”

Raising Requirements Across the Country

Other States also have increased graduation requirements in mathematics, science, English and social studies in recent years. For example:

  • Seven States increased the number of required mathematics courses for students who graduated in 2013
  • 17 other States increased the mathematics requirements for students who will graduate in 2014 or subsequent years

In fall 2012, Hawaii, another State that received a Race to the Top grant, created a new college- and career-ready diploma for all incoming freshmen, who must now complete expository writing as part of their English requirements and more rigorous mathematics and science courses before they graduate in 2016. Most of the State’s high schools were already offering the required courses, but now all of them will be able to do so, partly by providing access to required courses online. As a result, every high school graduate will meet or surpass the University of Hawaii’s credit requirements.


  • Track detailed information and student progress. In the first few years of MassCore, Massachusetts asked schools to report the number and percentage of graduates who complete the MassCore requirements. However, the State now is also collecting course-level data for students, which should help schools track student progress and highlight common barriers to completion. Hawaii also has designed its longitudinal data system to track student progress toward its college- and career-ready diploma.
  • Make families aware of expectations. Springfield officials bring MassCore information to parent academies and parent-teacher associations and send letters to parents letting them know whether their children are on track to complete the new course requirements, said Johnson. This is especially important for the families of students who transfer into the district from elsewhere. Hawaii sends brochures home and sponsors television spots to make sure parents and students know about the new diploma requirements.
  • Core academics are not enough. Massachusetts strongly encourages students to work, complete internships, take Advancement Placement and other advanced classes, provide community service, enroll in a senior seminar and produce a capstone project or research paper.


The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has prepared one-page fact sheets, answers to Frequently Asked Questions, curriculum frameworks, and a PowerPoint presentation that districts can use to introduce MassCore different audiences.

A collection of resources on ways to increase college- and career-readiness can also be found at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Website.